For the longest time, Jets fans never had to give the slightest care to special teams. The team was going to excel in that phase of the game. It was a given.
Why? The legendary Mike Westhoff. Over his 13 years in New York, the Jets ranked top-10 in special teams DVOA eight times, achieving an average rank of 9.2.
In 2012, the Jets ranked 21st in special teams DVOA, their worst rank under Westhoff, and the longtime coordinator called it quits after the season.
From there, special teams slowly but surely festered into a glaring weakness for the Jets. They rebounded in 2013, ranking 10th, but then fell to 16th in 2014. In 2015, they tumbled once more to 25th.
That season, brutal special teams play cost the Jets on numerous occasions, a terrible year for that to be the case as the Jets fell one touchdown short of a playoff berth. Particularly, the Jets’ punting unit was ranked last in DVOA, as Ryan Quigley ranked second-worst in net punting average (36.5) while the coverage group allowed two touchdowns and the third-most yards per return (12.7). The Jets allowed a punt return touchdown to Darren Sproles in a one-score loss to the Eagles. Quigley shanked a 21-yarder that set up an easy Bills touchdown in Week 17. When Quigley missed a game in Foxboro, Steve Weatherford came off the couch and punted awfully in what wound up being a close loss.
Not to be forgotten is Devin Smith’s kickoff fumble that was returned for a touchdown against the Bills in Week 10, yet another costly special teams play in what turned out to be a crucial one-score loss within the conference.
So, yeah, the Jets were an utter disaster on special teams in 2015. Had they been even average on special teams that year, it seems likely they would have headed to the playoffs for the first since time since 2010.
After sifting through three coordinators post-Westhoff (Ben Kotwicka, Thomas McGaughey, Bobby April), the Jets turned to Colts special teams assistant Brant Boyer, who was a special teams ace himself over ten NFL seasons from 1994-2003 with Miami, Jacksonville, and Cleveland.
Boyer’s first season was a disaster, as the Jets ranked 32nd in special teams DVOA. But this time around, the Jets remained patient, giving Boyer time to get things right. In 2017, Boyer’s unit crept up to 25th.
Then came 2018. The Jets excelled in all five phases of special teams, and catapulted up to the No. 1 spot in special teams DVOA.
In 2019, the Jets were elite on special teams yet again, ranking fourth in DVOA. A talent deficiency at kicker brought them down a bit, but if you exclude placekicking DVOA, the Jets led the league in DVOA across the other four categories for the second consecutive season.
Brant Boyer has done it. The Jets are BACK!
Well, on special teams, at least.
Let’s dig into what went right in 2019 for the Jets’ dominant special teams group.
PUNT (4th DVOA)
The punting unit was the most glaring problem for the Jets over their period of special teams misery. Ryan Quigley was a disaster, so the Jets turned around and drafted Lachlan Edwards in the seventh round of the 2016 Draft. They also added Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett, setting the stage for an epic Aussie punting competition.
Edwards won out, but he struggled over his first two seasons, with the Jets posting the NFL’s worst punting DVOA from 2016-17. The coverage unit ranked in the bottom half of yards per punt return allowed in each season.
Since then, both Edwards and the coverage unit have improved considerably. The Jets ranked 14th in punting DVOA in 2018, and leaped to fourth in 2019. Here, Edwards drops one in at the Bills’ six-yard line, downed by Darryl Roberts.
PUNT RETURN (4th DVOA)
Braxton Berrios had an excellent season, ranking second among qualifiers in yards per punt return (11.4). He was able to do that despite his longest return going for just 26 yards, a testament to his remarkable consistency. 12 of Berrios’ 21 returns went for 10 yards or more. This 21-yard return by Berrios in Baltimore was one of his flashiest of the season.
KICKOFF (1st DVOA)
The Jets were outstanding in kickoff coverage, topping the league in this phase. They allowed the third-fewest yards per kick return (19.3), with their longest returned allowed going for just 26 yards. The best field position yielded by the Jets off of a kickoff (onside kicks excluded) was just the 33-yard line. Only 14 of the Jets’ 65 kickoffs resulted in the opponent beginning their drive beyond the 25-yard line (21.5 percent).
Boyer has had the kickoff unit beating blocks and swarming to the ball with great consistency. Here, B.J. Bello (lined up closest to the kicker on the right side) flies down the field, rips underneath a weak block attempt, and makes a phenomenal open-field tackle to bring down Trevor Davis at the 16-yard line.
KICK RETURN (12th DVOA)
The Jets ranked just 20th in yards per kick return (21.8), but DVOA graded their efficiency much better, placing them 12th with a slightly above average score. Penalties limited the Jets’ upside here, as they had eight of them in the kickoff return game. When the Jets kept the flags off the field, they did a solid job returning kicks, taking 15 of 29 non-flagged kickoff returns beyond the 25-yard line.
Braxton Berrios (four returns), Trenton Cannon (five), Ty Montgomery (18), and Vyncint Smith (10) each returned some kickoffs for the Jets in 2019, but it was Smith showing the most potential. Although he fumbled away a return against the Redskins, Smith had the team’s longest return of the season, a 78-yarder in Miami that was more than twice as long as the team’s next-biggest return. Smith led the group in return average by a wide margin with a mark of 29.9. Even if you remove his 78-yard scamper, Smith’s average would be 24.6, still substantially better than the marks posted by the other three (Montgomery, 20.2, Cannon, 19.2, Berrios, 12.0). Counting out returns that were called back by penalties, Smith took six of his nine returns beyond the 25.
Smith’s aforementioned 78-yard return against Miami was highly impressive. After dodging one diving tackle attempt, Smith takes a hard helmet shot to the thigh/knee area, but somehow maintains his balance and quickly hits second gear to burst free for a huge pickup.
Some other special teams tidbits:
- Kickoff coverage tackle leaders: Harvey Langi (7), Tarell Basham (5), B.J. Bello (5), Matthias Farley (4), Frankie Luvu (4)
- Punt coverage tackle leaders: Brandon Copeland (5), Albert McClellan (5), Daniel Brown (4), Thomas Hennessy (4), Rontez Miles (4)
- Thomas Hennessy was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded long snapper, and led the position in tackles with four.